OP-ED: Why the Right Loves Cancel Culture

Justin Holmes, Contributor

The right loves “cancel culture.” 

Look no further than the February 2021 CPAC convention with its theme “America Uncancelled,” or the Fox News Opinion section with its recent piece “When cancel culture came for Ben Franklin–here’s how this founder fought back.” 

The right may not love the phenomenon of “cancel culture,” but it has emerged as their favorite weapon in the cultural and political fight against “wokeness.” 

The term “woke” emerged in activist speech to describe people who were aware of social—particularly racial—issues in America. Now, it is mainly used as a political insult to downplay the concerns of left-wing activists, and the left in general. People who find themselves subject to “woke” criticisms often suggest they are being “canceled” or that they are a victim of “cancel culture.” 

Supposed “cancel culture” victims, however, are almost never actually made long-term social pariahs.  Country singer Morgan Wallen returned to social media after a two-month long self-imposed break after a racial slur-laced drunken rant was caught on video. In his handwritten apology, the singer—whose songs have rapidly climbed charts in his absence—apologized for his actions saying “I [am] truly sorry and have been making my amends.” Dr. Seuss books remain on library shelves around the country despite their publisher—not a public official or liberal activist—deciding to quit printing a small fraction of the collection. Despite controversy over his close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker remains a widely heard, read, and tenured professor at Harvard.

None of this is new. People, ideas, and things have gone in and out of popularity for centuries as the marketplace of ideas dictated where people would give their attention and spend their money.

So, why has “cancel culture” only recently become such a beloved topic for the right? Surely they don’t care enough about protecting the image of country singers, children’s books, or university professors enough to make this issue their golden goose? No. Cancel culture gives GOP officials a shield against legitimate accountability and acts as a distraction from their own efforts to destabilize democracy in the wake of their 2020 presidential election defeat

Cancel culture has become the default response to any sort of criticism, no matter how fair. In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled Assembly appointed Rep. Janel Brandtjen—who had previously falsely claimed that Trump won Wisconsin—to lead a committee to review unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. When Wisconsin Democrats questioned Brandtjen’s credibility, they were told to “stop practicing cancel culture.”

MyPillow, led by Trump ally CEO Mike Lindell, filed a lawsuit against Dominion Voting systems, saying Dominion is “using today’s cancel culture” to silence critics of their technology’s use in false 2020 election conspiracy theories. Characterizing Dominion’s own lawsuits against actors such as Lindell who spread false theories about their products as “cancel culture” is an attempt to distract from the lack of any meaningful evidence in the fraud claims. Holding someone accountable for false claims isn’t canceling them; it’s setting the record straight.    

As news of a Department of Justice investigation—with origins in the Trump administration—into Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz’s potential sex trafficking crimes became public, the self-described “firebrand” took to Twitter to claim he was “a canceled man in some corners,” and “even a wanted man by the Deep State.” This dismissal of a serious federal investigation as merely the natural product of “cancel culture” shows the utility of the phenomenon as a shield from accountability. 

Trump’s removal from Twitter has been widely cited as “cancel culture” in action, rather than as punishment—despite repeated warnings—for inciting violence and encouraging the overturning of democratic election results.    

People should feel comfortable to discuss difficult topics, respectfully express themselves, and voice what may be considered unpopular opinions without fear of being publicly shamed and ridiculed. If this were not the case, then perhaps “cancel culture” would be a topic worthy of discussion. As it stands now, healthy debate is tolerated; unnecessary cruelness is not.   

The right invented “cancel culture.” From conservatives in Texas in 1955 banning radio stations from playing the songs of 30 Black artists for being “obscene,” to the centuries-long refusal to recognize gay marriage on the basis of moral disapproval, the right has condemned and ostracized any and all with whom they disagree. Only now, as the cultural conversation shifts leftwards, do conservatives object to the power of collective disapproval.  

The right characterizes the threat of “cancel culture” as a fundamental threat to free speech, to American traditionalism, and, at its core, to whiteness. In doing so, the GOP play into the white cultural grievance politics—the idea that white people increasingly face oppression in America—that has helped them court so many voters in the age of Trump. The message is “we are under attack,” and that attack comes in the form of “cancel culture.” It is a tool of deflection, but it is also one of the most effective recruitment tools. The right loves “cancel culture”—and as long as they continue to reap its benefits, they will continue to invoke it.  

Image by Scott Webb via Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/dr.-seuss